In the 1990’s, hip-hop artist Luther Campbell was attacked by politicians and legislators who wanted to censor his music because of what they deemed to be offensive lyrics. He spent years in court fighting for his First Amendment right, eventually prevailing and paving the way for artists to now be able to express themselves freely. Today Campbell is embedded in the NFL community, having run a youth football program in Miami for 29 years in which he has coached several current players, including Falcons running back Devonta Freeman. After Donald Trump’s remarks at an Alabama rally on Friday night, labeling any NFL player who protests a “son of a bitch” and saying that they should be fired, Sports Illustrated’s Ben Baskin reached out to Campbell. Their conversation is transcribed below, edited slightly for clarity.
SI: What were your first thoughts when you saw Trump’s comments?
Campbell: When I heard those comments I thought that was the most idiotic comments I could ever hear from a commander-in-chief, defender of The Constitution. That’s a clear disrespect for— forget about football—that’s a clear disrespect to our forefathers who created The Constitution. What he should have been saying was that he would condemn any owner if he blackballs, colludes or conspires to get rid of any player because of him using his First Amendment right, which is free speech. But he’s just feeding his base. That’s what he does, and that’s what his base wants to hear.
SI: A part of Trump’s comments that has been less talked about is his belief that the NFL is officiating the violence out of the game too much, that the added safety is why the league’s ratings are down.
Campbell: That was idiotic. You got guys like Junior Seau and all those players committing suicide and it’s clear that these concussions are dangerous and these rules they put in place are to protect the players. Trump treats everybody that is not a billionaire as a slave. When you look at people like that, you have no compassion for the actual workers. He wants cheap labor. Anybody that’s not in the billionaire boy club, he looks at as a slave. That’s his mentality. It’s the same as he told the police [in a speech in July] to be more forceful. That’s the same kind of comment. That’s inciting police brutality. So him saying the game of football is soft, he doesn’t understand that translates all the way down to Pop Warner and my youth program. You want to take out all the safety measures so we can have more paraplegics and more kids with brain damage? Are you serious? His base of people wants to see black people run into each other and kill each other. He wants gladiator sports.
SI: You brought up your youth program. As a coach for young kids in football, how do those comments make you feel just in terms of the viability of the sport of football in the future?
Campbell: My youth program is all built around safety and I coach high school football right now too. When you encourage more violence in the sport that translates down to my kids in my youth program. The spot is gradually dying already. Most parents are scared to put their kids in football. Our numbers based on what they were 10 years ago in my program—a 29-year-old program—right now more kids are not playing football. We went from about 450 kids in my program to around 300 kids. We’ve lost whole divisions of kids. You can’t even field a team of 13-14 year olds in Pop Warner in Miami, and Miami is the Mecca of football. Those kids ain’t even coming out, they don’t want nothing to do with football. It’s a dying sport because of [the danger]. Now you are encouraging more violence? That’s bananas.
SI: After your very public fight against censorship, especially government censorship, and for freedom of speech, when you see the President of the United States not only condemn players for utilizing their First Amendment right, but also saying that they should lose their jobs because of it, does that remind you of your court battles back in the 90’s?
Campbell: It’s almost like being hit for the first time in the back of the head and then anytime anything get close to the back of your head you flinch and are paranoid to it. That’s what this is like for me. It takes me back. When I was fighting for free speech and defending The Constitution, I was defending it because I was a black man and I felt that these politicians didn’t think we had any rights to The Constitution. That free speech wasn’t a black thing, it was a white thing. I looked at all the people who were doing the same thing I was doing who weren’t being affected the same way I was being affected. Vice President Dan Quayle made comments about me. Him and the governor of Florida said I don’t have the right to say what I’m saying. So when Trump gets out there and says that, it definitely takes me back. He is defending his buddies, his good ol’ boy network.
So I can clearly relate to [Colin Kaepernick]. It’s the guy who goes out and fights first, the trailblazer, who is always the one who gets affected the worst. The other guys who are protesting are not getting blackballed. And the other guys who fought for free speech in hip hop, they didn’t get blackballed. But I got blackballed. I’m Colin Kaepernick of the music industry. I got blackballed. For the amount of records that I sold in my business, I should have been equivalent to Jimmy Iovine of Interscope, or Craig Kallman of Atlantic Records. As independent executives they did not sell a tenth of my records that I sold, or the artists I built up from the ground floor. I was the guy fighting for free speech and everybody frowned upon it. I’m Colin Kaepernick. He’s me. That’s why I respect him.
SI: What have your conversations been with the players you are friendly with in the league?
Campbell: The kids that I coached, that I know in the league, I talk to them from the standpoint of, do they understand what’s going on? If they’re knowledgeable of the situation, then do they want to act on it? I’m deeply rooted in the struggle. I’ve had conversations with the Miami Dolphins. They’ve held meetings after some of their players took a knee last year. It was a great thing the organization did, they wanted to understand the issues. They brought us all in, law enforcement, politicians, community activists, high school football coaches, they brought us all to the facility and we had some deep conversations. We were talking to the players, the management, the coaches, everybody was there in the big meeting room. It was real deep. We kept the dialogue going. To this day I am talking to the Dolphins, people in the organization. They want to understand this. You have to try to understand what’s going on, why the people feel the way they feel.